Dysfunctional Congress Hurts Government IT

Government IT budgeting was hard enough even before government shutdowns, says this former government CIO. What can be done to combat the dynamic with Congress?
The last time the Congress approved and the President passed the federal budget was in April 2009. The federal government has since spent over $10 trillion through CRs and without a budget that Congress has passed. So, in effect in 2013, the government is spending on a budget based out of 2009. Furthermore, since it takes three years to pass a budget, what we are really working off in IT are priorities set much earlier!

Think how your personal spending patterns would look today if you were required to spend exactly how you spent three to six years back! Ouch!

Additionally, because CRs typically are sanctioned for short durations, the government IT departments can no longer buy commodity IT in bulk or replace older non-working systems with newer, more effective and efficient products, let alone start any new programs. The impact of CRs is disastrous at best. It increases cost and complexity while reducing services to citizens and businesses, never mind the low morale it drives into federal workers.

It Gets Worse With Government Shutdowns

Agencies have somehow adapted to the inefficiencies and management challenges of CRs. But now the Congress has reached a new low whereby lawmakers can't even agree on CRs, bringing the federal government to the shutdown situation.

A shutdown is more troublesome than a CR for several reasons. A shutdown forces federal CIOs and other leadership to go into crisis mode. They must assess and designate essential from the non-essential systems. Then they must prepare those systems for a stoppage during a government shutdown and be ready to start them up again. This is a huge task in large government agencies and can refocus IT priority for months.

If Congress continues this cat-and-mouse game every few months, all that IT staff is doing is practicing systems shutdowns and startups, with IT managers dealing with temporary layoffs of its employees and contractors. That's a recipe for disaster and I think U.S. citizens deserve better!

So What Can We Do?

Two things must happen to improve the situation. First, the partisan gridlock of Congress must change. Second, government IT must change, too.

Americans might no longer think so, but most leaders in Congress are good folks willing to compromise for the improvement of the country. However, there are a few -- typically coming from gerrymandered, safe congressional districts -- who know that all it takes to get and stay elected is to succeed in their managed primary election.

Typically, these folks have no interest in compromise for the betterment of American citizens but are focused on their core partisan constituency back home. Unless we elect individuals who have a deeper respect for what's good for the nation, Congress will continue to be polarized. So make sure to get involved in your primary elections and elect reasonable, bipartisan leaders.

At the same time, federal IT initiatives remain too focused on custom IT services and the technology contractor suppliers who develop them.

These IT services are costly to develop, time-consuming to deploy and difficult to maintain and upgrade. They reduce the flexibility and agility of government IT departments. The federal government must aggressively move toward productization of services.

One example of how agencies can escape from traditional budgeting traps is through innovative matching services such as those being developed by GOVonomy, which I helped start, and others, which build collaborative working relationships between product startups, growth technology companies and the government sector.

It might take a long time before the dysfunction of Congress begins to improve. But agencies can help themselves in the meantime if they avoid the complexity of building custom solutions wherever possible and deploy more agile, commercially available solutions that are efficient to start, operate, manage or shut down.

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Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer